Parents: “Why Is PSLE Maths So Darn Difficult?!”

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(This is Part 1 of a 2-part Blog: Parents’ Take. Check out Part 2: PSLE Students’ & Educators’ Takes to be published by mid July ’18 which will feature interviews with 4 current PSLE Maths students and teachers. Written, researched & compiled by Cecilia Leong.)

? Hands up parents who’ve signed their kids and themselves up for PSLE Maths booster camps or workshops. If you haven’t done so, let me try to shed some light on why I – a self-confessed anti-tiger parent would do such a thing to my third (and last) kid needing to pass this rite of passage (the operative word here being pass).

Having known and spoken with quite a few primary and secondary Maths teachers and tutors this past decade and more has confirmed an unconscionable truth: that upper primary, more specifically, PSLE Maths, is in a league of its own. These educators have more or less affirmed that Maths at secondary level are easier than PSLE Maths. Don’t believe me? Read on.

Mr Incredible doing psle math

GIF caption: Mr Incredible from The Incredibles 2 stating what many of us parents continue to feel through the decades. Gif credit: Imgur.com Image source: Disney Pixar.

Yes, PSLE Maths Has Always Been Difficult

Asian balls examination meme

Meme Caption: For those who do not already know, the Ministry of Education or MOE-administered Primary School Leaving Examination or PSLE, is a national examination system for all graduating primary school students in Singapore. The exams determine these students’ entry into secondary schools aka as many parents call it their children’s FATES (via the Secondary One (S1) posting exercise or the Direct School Admission-Secondary (DSA-Sec) exercise.

Introduced in March 1960, PSLE has come a long way. It introduced a new subject-based banding (or PRI) in 2009, which introduced Foundation level subjects as a way to refine the streaming process to help each child realise his or her potential, based on his or her individual strengths and needs. Now you would think that this might have made PSLE Maths easier but the opposite is true.

2017 PSLE Maths question: Parents, can you do this?

Jess wants 200 ribbons of length 110 cm for a party. However, the ribbons were sold at 25 m per tape. How many tapes will Jess need? (Not exact wording.)

It looks like an easy question that can be solved easily enough, in just 2 steps:

  1. Multiply 200 by 110 = 22,000 cm
  2. Get the answer and divide it by 2,500 = 8.8; then round up the answer to the nearest whole number (9).

Except 9 tapes is not the correct answer, it’s actually 10. (For the solution, go to the end of the blog.)

Even MPs and Parents Can’t Solve PSLE Maths

As far back as 30 years ago in 1988, the Straits Times reported that then MPs (members of Parliament) were stumped with a PSLE question (apparently called the question number 6) which was so difficult that it warranted a response from then Minister of Education Dr Tay Eng Soon. MP S. Chandra (Chong Boon ward) who was prompted by parents of the previous year’s (1987) PSLE Maths examination paper, brought up a concern at Parliament that PSLE Maths was getting too difficult; in fact, even several of the MPs were stumped and unable to solve the question. Mr Chandra Das contended that the paper “penalized the majority of average and below-average students, but was a giveaway for the pupils of the Gifted programme”. Dr Tay rubbished this, of course.

Incredibles 2 mr incredible doing psle math

Gif credit: Imgur.com Image source: Disney Pixar.

In 1992, the Straits Times then reported that MOE was criticized by parents who raged that PSLE Maths paper were “entirely filled with tough questions”. In 2000, more than 25 angry parents called the Straits Times hotline to complain about PSLE Maths paper being “too difficult” on the very day the examination took place. It wasn’t any different in 2007 when 10 different Maths teachers from various schools reported to The Sunday Times that they had never seen so many pupils crying after a PSLE paper.

Fast forward 5 years later (2012), another frustrated parent Mr Ian Tan was prompted to write to the Forum pages of the Straits Times when he brought up the then Education Minister (Mr Heng Swee Keat’s) call that “parents should not compare education methods of today with those of the past, since children will be growing up in a different world from today.”

Education in Singapore is an ‘Arms Race’

Mr Tan pointed out that “herein lies the contradiction that frustrates parents”. He said that “many parents have given repeated feedback (yes, Straits Times reports that it has been so since the ‘70s), that the system has been overloading our children with a curriculum of unrealistic standards. This has thus resulted in an arms race between tutors, tuition centres, school principals and even assessment book authors posing more and more difficult or ludicrous test questions for our bewildered children.”

Incredibles 2 mr incredible doing psle math

Gif credit: Imgur.com Image source: Disney Pixar.

He went on to say that “many well-educated parents work long hours in a society stressed by rising costs, yet are asked to learn new teaching methods for PSLE”. His penultimate question, “So one wonders why we even went to university if we now struggle with elementary mathematics?”

Let the Data Speak for Itself

The last education statistics digest which was published by MOE last year had some illuminating facts for a parent like myself. The 2016 PSLE cohort by far did well enough that some 98.4% of the entire cohort, numbering at least 38,400+ children, were eligible for secondary school. Compare this to 2009 where only 97.1% of the cohort made it.

Now for the top most question on everyone’s minds: what about PSLE cohort performance in Maths? Some 85.2% of the entire 2016 cohort scored upwards of a C to an A* in Maths. Compare this to the 2015 cohort which did slightly better with a historic record of 85.4%. Compare this with the yesteryears of 2007 (83.2%) and 2010 (84.1%). Then let’s take a look at how they performed for the rest of the subjects: English 96.7%, Mother Tongue 96.9% and Science 90.2%. It is rather clear that Maths seem to be the hardest subject to score at least a C in. And the discrepancy between Maths and the best performing subject Mother Tongue, is 10 percentage points, which is equivalent to some 3,900 students. Now imagine if your child is one of them? How would that affect their final T-score (PSLE number score)? Therein lies the origination and perpetuation of Math anxiety.

Charlie brown psle math anxiety

Gif source: Giphy. Image source: The Coffeelicious, Charles M. Schultz.

According to Edutopia, math anxiety is more than real, and is a legitimate concern for many educators as it hinders the progress they are trying to make. It’s not just mere dislike for maths – it’s a real problem as it blocks the brain’s working memory and it helps to self-perpetuate this vicious cycle of math avoidance, low achievement and fear. Math anxiety may manifest as early as kindergarten, and as many as half of all primary school students. So how can you tell if your child has it? There are 5 main symptoms of math anxiety parents and educators should look out for:

#1 Avoidance: Math anxiety and math avoidance go together. If your children who for any reason find ways to avoid the work i.e constantly excusing themselves to go to the bathroom or perhaps with excuses that they have other more urgent work to do, or copying work from their friends or classmates or an extreme example, some kids have been known to even cut classes.

#2 Lack of response: If your child seems to freeze when asked a maths question, or exhibit symptoms of stress when doing maths EVEN WHEN HE OR SHE CAN DO the problem sum, then he or she’s got math anxiety.

#3 Tears or fits of anger: If they get angry easily or even cry, this could be because they tend to be very hard on themselves as they might think that being good at maths means getting correct answers quickly and all of the time.

#4 Low achievement: Given that math-anxious kids avoid doing maths as far as possible, it may not come as a surprise that this affects their achievement. With less exposure to maths than their peers, these kids would tend to perform more poorly on assignments and assessments. And once they get these grades, they label themselves as “bad at math”.

#5 Negative Self-Talk: Children who suffer from math anxiety have negative thoughts about the subject and their abilities, and much of this talk can centre around words such as “I hate maths.” “I’m not good at it.” “I always fail.” I’ll never be able to do this.”

How do you counter the above? Many parents believe including myself, that you have to get the buy-in from your child. And once there’s commitment to wanting to take stock of the situation, to wanting to improve, you’ll then need to get the buy-in from a Maths teacher who’ll commit to your child, and not just his or her grade.

Being Successful in Math Relies on Life-Changing Teachers/Tutors Who Model Patience

Sakamoto Educational Systems teacher Audrey with her students

Sakamoto Math Teacher Audrey with some of her upper primary students. Image courtesy of Sakamoto Educational Systems.

Here’s a problem sum from the 2017 Maths Exam Paper 2, question #13, solved using the Sakamoto method:

Gopal and Henry were paid $3850 for a job they did.  Gopal was paid $2030 more than Henry.

(a) How much was Gopal paid?

Gopal and Henry were paid based on the number of days they worked.  Gopal worked 3 times as many days as Henry.  Gopal was paid $5 more than Henry per day.

(b) How many days did Gopal work?

<< Using Sum & Difference Maths and Area Diagram: Sakamoto Method>>

Sakamoto Solution

The answer for (a) is $2,940.00 and (b) is 42 days.

For the Sakamoto Maths teachers I’ve spoken to, there was a common thread and agreement. They believe that kids actually don’t hate Maths. Rather, they are afraid of it. According to a Mathnasium blog, teachers believe that this might have come from the kids not understanding the basics of a concept and then getting lost going forward as the teachers in school had to rush to complete the syllabus. And when the concept and sums advanced, Maths for them just got harder and harder. And that’s where the hatred and fear gets compounded.

“It’s like my Maths teacher is talking in some alien language. Even when he’s speaking slower, it doesn’t make sense to me. I feel so stupid. While the rest of my classmates seemed to have understood him and are able to do the sums, I felt absolutely lost but hid it ‘cos I didn’t want to appear dumb.”

Children hate feeling like a failure. I can attest to this, after all, it was my son I quoted when he expressed as per above how isolated and alone he felt in his “failure” to math. The severity of the anxiety develops particularly when the school Maths teacher who is also his remedial instructor hasn’t taken the time to identify my son’s anxiety and fear. What’s worse is he begins to believe that he’s not good enough to comprehend and acquire this knowledge that is alluding him; that he’s not meant to be part of this circle with ‘reasoning faculties’.

My eldest’s testimonial about her PSLE teachers chills me to the bone, “My primary 6 teachers were to me, not human. They didn’t care when you didn’t get it/comprehend what they’re teaching. They EXPECTED you to get it. And if you don’t, they expect you to get tuition. It’s never their fault. But it’s always our fault.”

Sakamoto Educational Systems: Challenge Accepted

Tueetor challenge accepted by Sakamoto Educational Systems

Gif source: Giphy.

In a “throw-down-a-gauntlet” moment, for the part 2 of this blog I’ll be writing on the real-time transformation of my primary 6 daughter’s Maths performance, under the tutelage of an established Maths tuition centre Sakamoto Educational Systems, and a couple of nurturing, caring math tutors.

After all, my 3 kids having gone through some 5 big-name Maths-focused and general tuition centres (no, I won’t be naming there here) and another 5 more home-based tutors of myriad abilities (most are university graduates, 1 with a PHD and another who was studying for her Masters), have more or less gone through it all.

So herein lies the challenge: how can Tueetor Premium Partner Sakamoto Educational Systems help my primary 6 daughter improve sufficiently that she can

1. Get over her Math anxiety

2. Improve her confidence and esteem in the subject, and

3. Do well enough to pass this September?

If you want to see how she’ll fare, stay tuned for the Part 2 of this blog (to be published by end June). If you want to enroll your child in the June holidays introductory workshops with Sakamoto Educational Systems,  visit https://tueetor.com/sakamotoeducationalsystems or sign up here https://tueetor.com/users/course_enquiry/189/739 . Like, comment or share this blog & let us know what you think!

(For those who’ve scrolled down for this here’s the solution for the other PSLE maths question which also appeared in last year’s paper:)

The solution:

1. The essential step is to derive the number of ribbons that Jess can cut from each tape. Since each tape is 25 m (2,500 cm) long and she wants 110 cm ribbons, we must divide 2,500 by 110, which gives us 22.72. Round this answer down to the nearest whole number (=22), because excess tape cannot be used to create more ribbons. Therefore, Jess can only get 22 ribbons from each tape.

2. Since we need 200 ribbons, we must divide the number of ribbons she wants by the number of ribbons each tape produces. 200 divided by 22 = 9.09. You need to round this answer up to the nearest whole number which is 10, as Jess can only buy whole tapes and not partial tapes to make all 200 ribbons.

Therefore, Jess needs 10 tapes to decorate the party.

Question is, would you be able to solve it?